Anne D’Alleva: Where do we come from? What are we? And where are we going?
Fred Myers: One of the fundamental problems that culture faces is the articulation of the place of the human self in the world, in the broader world, in a cosmos.
We are beings who live through a symbolic order. Therefore, we’re faced with the possibility of somehow formulating in terms graspable, intelligible, experience-able, our place in that world. And culture, while it does many things including organizing us to make our way from here to the gas station, provides us general models for understanding our relationship to the ultimate conditions of existence.
Segment Title: Mapping the Universe
Peter Roe: Amazonian cultures look at their whole world, their whole cosmos, as a series of floating platters. The body art that people wear, the body paint, their feather work, their beadwork, incorporates all the levels of their universe. For example, if you look at a man’s body, the upper canopy is the top of a man’s head and his shoulders. So he is going to pick the most powerful birds, like a giant harpy eagle, and pluck the feathers from it for his headdress.
Around his waist he’ll wear objects emulative of earth world, like the skin of a jaguar. And then on his lower feet and legs he will wear adornments from the giant caiman, or the anaconda, the underworld reptilian being. So every level of his body corresponds exactly to every level of the triple-tier tropical rain forest and the cosmos in which he dwells. He is the cosmological body; that is, his body is, as it were, a map of the universe.
So, not only is his body a walking map, he lives in a map. It goes from an individual artifact, to the assemblage of artifacts, to the body with this assemblage of artifacts, to the hut in which the body and its assemblage of artifacts are placed. To the village in which the hut is place. To the landscape in which the hut and all the villages are placed. You look at it from God’s eye and it’s an infinite series of concentric circles that goes out from the axis mundi, from the center. It’s like those medieval maps of the universe, you know, that have the earth in the center and then all of those celestial spheres that go out infinitum. It’s like that in the jungle.
Mary Miller: All belief, all religious belief, has things we can see and we can’t see. And in believing in things we can’t see, we often like to have a kind of image of how it works.
Rosemary Joyce: One of the things that has been thought of as being very distinctive about the Classic Maya is that their architecture and their site planning is seen as being a very self-conscious attempt to represent aspects of their cosmology, of their belief system, of the way they think the world is structured.
Mary Miller: The building we call the Castillo lies in the center of a vast elevated plaza. The Castillo is a man-made mountain. And mountains are places where you gain access to the heavens. So one of the things that they fix on with Chichen is the way that the movements of the heavens can be made transparent and visible.
It is a quite remarkable building in that on the days of the equinox—fall and spring—the light strikes this building and you see on the north side that the nine levels of the pyramid shift into what seem to be seven segments of a serpent. And it seems to travel off and head off to this natural sinkhole we call the Sacred Cenote.
For the Maya, the cenote is a kind of point of entry into the earth, this portal, if you will, into an underworld. The Castillo is mapping out a cosmology of heaven’s activities on the surface of the earth and an opening to the underworld all at once, taking us through this kind of order that humans have put in order to explain the complexity of their world.
Segment Title: Imagining the Beginning
Vitaly Komar: This is the nature of humankind, this curiosity. We like to understand the something unexplainable, some mystery. We like to find the answer of the mystery. And always since my childhood I was going to understand how did this world start?
Anne D’Alleva: In Polynesian cultures there’s a wonderful creation story. It is a very important religious story that you see portrayed again and again in various places.
There is the earth mother Papa and the sky father Rangi, and they are tightly locked in an embrace. And, in fact, their children are suffocating; they are caught between their parents.
Finally Tane, who ultimately becomes a very important god, says he is going to separate his parents. So he gathers up his strength and he pushes. And he pushes and pushes and pushes. And he finally pries them apart and he pushes Rangi, the sky father, up into the sky and Papa is the earth mother. And the two of them are very upset that this has happened. And Rangi cries tears which become, of course, the rain. But it was necessary to separate the parents and to free the children. And the children then go on to become the gods and ultimately the ancestors of human beings.
So Maori canoe prows is one place that you see this portrayed. And you can understand that because when warriors go forth, this reminder of where they came from, their primordial origins, is very important.
Segment Title: Picturing the Divine
Babatunde Lawal: If you remember Genesis, God said, “Let us create man in our own image.” But the idea of creation is double-sided. We created the idea of a deity as a kind of self-reflection.
Vishaka Desai: When we think about gods and goddesses in the Western tradition, we go back to the classical Greek tradition. And often we say that these gods are idealized humans.
So we elevate humans to become ideals. Indian gods and goddesses really come out from the other end. It is the concept of god that then is represented in human form. If the god has four functions and you want to show that, the best thing to do is to give extra arms, and you put some symbols, and then you’re done. So people always say, “But, but human beings don’t have that,” and I always remind everybody that they are not really human beings. They are put in a human form for our understanding, and that is the difference.
Ilan Stavans: It is a very interesting question to ponder—why do we represent the divine in our art?
Andrew Stewart: In the case of an anthropomorphic religion, it obviously reifies the forms of the divinity you’re worshipping. The crucifix on the altar immediately brings Christ’s Passion to life. So, if you look at that crucifix or you look at that crucifix or you look at Grünewald’s Isenheim altar and the emaciated body of Christ, the suffering of God for our sins becomes as it were viscerally apparent to you.
Larry Silver: The number of wounds, the visible greenish tint, as well as blood-hued tint of all the surfaces of skin, the distortion that comes to the feet and the hands of this tormented figure on the cross can only elicit our deepest human compassion and pity.
The Christian religion teaches that Christ offered up his body and his premature death for the salvation of all who would believe in him, so the image of Christ’s own suffering becomes a source of comfort and hope. Any viewer who had started with the everyday figure of that emaciated and tormented body of Christ, can only feel a kind of visual and spiritual uplift as you see the resurrection of Christ, who dissolves into golden light on the inside of the Isenheim altarpiece.
Art seems to be the medium that people use to elicit faith, to create a kind of personal relationship to whatever institutional religion they are a part of.
Segment Title: Worshipping with Images
Larry Silver: The icon is a fabulous example of the way that visual imagery can be an instrumental part of faith, especially if you go into an Orthodox church and see people literally kissing a picture.
Jane Ashton Sharp: An icon is an image that is worshipped in the Orthodox faith that bears a visual resemblance to the person referred to in the image. So there is a relationship of similarity. But there is also a trace of divine. The presence of the divine in an icon depends on this direct succession of images that goes back to the original image, which in turn refers to the archetype, the person, the divine presence.
It is hard to say where the first image arises. There are several stories and one is the Veronica’s veil, which is the image of Christ not painted by human hands, where he physically, according to legend, left an impression of his face on a cloth. So those are images, prototypes that are repeated.
It’s not just repetition, it is tracing. An icon is created through a mechanical tracing and that tradition of tracing is of critical significance to the notion that it is connected to the divine in a material way. Icons are worshipped as a vehicle through which the divine communicates.
Larry Silver: The idea is that the image is meant to be a source of connection to you, as well as a means of transmission of your prayers to something beyond the image.
Bob Thurman: Buddhists have gods who are potent, but not omnipotent, and Buddhas are more potent than gods, but also still not omnipotent.
Yui Suzuki: The Buddha, or the awakened person, has thirty-two physical markings on his body that distinguishes him from regular human beings who are not awakened.
Bob Thurman: The Buddha is meant to look a little different, but close enough to the human form that the human thinks they are kind of human, so that they are encouraging to the human. Because they don’t want to look like something totally different like an alien—then the human would think, I can’t do what he did, I can’t understand like that, I can’t become a transcendent being like that.
Yui Suzuki: In the context of Buddhism, an icon can be a representation of the deity. But in other ways it is actually not just a representation, but the embodiment of the deity itself, especially in times of ritual when these icons become activated. They are embodiments of the sacred.
The Buddha is no longer just an object of worship, but the Buddha is there looking back at the worshipper. This is a dual communication, it’s a two-way process.
Jane Ashton Sharp: Human beings do believe that they are gaining greater access to the divine by imaging. Not just speaking, not just incantation, but there is something about actually creating physically images that bring you closer.
Babatunde Lawal: The Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria and neighboring countries traces the origin of the universe to a supreme being called Olódùmarè.
Now in Yoruba culture, Olódùmarè is venerated through a host of deities called òrìsà, unlike some cultures where the supreme being is venerated directly. Most of the òrìsà are personified and represented in art as sculptures, human sculptures.
Other òrìsàs are represented through certain sacred symbols which may be concealed in containers. Frequently these containers have faces on them. So there’s an emphasis on the use of sculpture to facilitate a kind of face-to-face communication with the spiritual.
Art serves as a kind of body for the òrìsà, as well as a bridge between the physical and the metaphysical.
Larry Silver: The whole idea of worship with images is a complicated history. And it has caused fear and destruction of images when some people thought images were taken too far, were literally being worshiped for themselves by the faithful.
Kishwar Rizvi: For believers, for example, of very, very orthodox Islam, and the polemicists have been writing about this since the tenth century, that if you start to worship anything other than this abstract idea of God, if you monumentalize it, if you make it material, if you make it physical, it is considered a heresy.
Nonetheless, human nature is such that people do need to have some physical aspect that materializes their devotion, that gives them something more than the abstraction.
Larry Silver: Art is a way to tell stories, to inspire devotion, and also to provide environments for faith. After all, there are all those structures, too, that need decoration.
Segment Title: Adorning Sacred Spaces
Jane Ashton Sharp: There is something beguiling about visual spectacle. You have only to go really to an Eastern church. It is one of the most stunning experiences—the interior spaces, the colors, the saturation of colors of icons, the fact that mosaics are glass and they reflect light, all of this has a tremendous visual impact on us. It is a sensory experience.
Kishwar Rizvi: In Islam we do have the most beautiful carpets, for example, that have been created to pray on. You have the prayer beads that help you count the different versus of the Qur’an that you might be reading at that moment.
What these works of art, these objects of art do is enhance your spiritual experience. They allow you to access that spiritual moment in your life and in your devotion that is much richer because of the beauty that is created around you. They allow you to create a space that is sacred, although you don’t need any particular space per se.
In Islam, the idea is that any individual has access to the religion on their own terms. And so even in the most sacred place, the mosque, there is just one requirement, which is that it should give you the direction to the Ka’ba in Mecca.
If there was a mosque that I think really defines the religion, it would be the Great Mosque in Spain. If you look at it, what you see are these pillars, and there are pillars and pillars and pillars that seem to go on to infinity. There is no hierarchy in them. They stand there as individual devotees, as each person who could stand there as equals. And that mosque has always represented to me the essential aspect of Islam that is about a community of people praying together.
Jane Ashton Sharp: Human beings are very concerned with representing their beliefs to others in their community. So in as much as faith is a communal experience, it is a way of representing your sense of belonging to your community. It is simply a very profound need, human need, to communicate through visual objects.
Segment Title: Seeing the Spiritual
Vitaly Komar: So many wars, bloody wars, are around because different beliefs, different faiths don’t understand each other, because verbal language is not enough to found communication.
I am artist. I am not expert in Kabbalah or in theology or in science. But what I really believe that art can create image which has no equivalent in language.
My latest project was Three-Day Weekend, symbols of the three-day weekend. This project united political and social utopias and ideas with spiritual ideas. For example, Friday is the holy day of Islam, Saturday is a day of Judaism, and Sunday is for Christianity.
I tried to create the peaceful co-existence of different visual symbols.
Sometimes in different images I combine menorah, and image of the moon, symbol of Islam, and cross and, of course, there are many different kind of cross.
Square is the symbol of the earth, circle the symbol of the heaven, and triangle the ancient symbol of spirituality. How in our mind came these figures—square, triangle, circle—it’s a mystery, it’s a kind of spiritual knowledge before we were born.
The God has many names, but we’re speaking about the same thing. And spirituality has also many different names. For example, in my childhood, Russia was officially an atheistic country. They say it’s the law of nature. But why the forces of nature obey the law of nature? The mystery stays still the mystery.
I never believed that I can save somebody. But I think it can, it can make some people meditate, to create a hermit for five minutes. People will start to think maybe about how to understand this mystery.
Thomas Crow: You don’t really achieve a connection with people just by flattering them or pandering to them. You have to touch their anxieties, their fears, their deeper kind of apprehension of one’s place in the universe if your art is going to have any real effectiveness or longevity.
I’ve been to the Rothko Chapel a number of times and each time I go I’ve been more drawn into it.
Now, when you look at the Rothko Chapel you find yourself in a world composed entirely of Rothkos. And I think it’s that sense of painting having its own realm, undisturbed, where you can settle and look at the appropriate sort of pace and degree of attention that Rothko wanted. You can call it metaphysical or religious or spiritual feeling, but I think that really has to be defined in its own terms.
He was attentive to what religion is used for in the culture and in one’s individual psychological makeup, but he wanted to reinvent that and not merely endorse, or underline some preexisting kind of belief. He wanted the painting to command its own form of belief on its own terms.
Vitaly Komar: Many artists, early avant-garde artists, they share the dream to destroy old tradition and to build a new world. It was an iconoclastic intention. But if you destroy one icon, sooner or later you create a new icon. You are back to this spirituality.
Anne D’Alleva: I think as human beings we often have a yearning to be in touch with the spiritual, to be in touch with something beyond who we are and what we are and beyond the specifics of our daily existence, a larger sense of ourselves in the world. And the spiritual is that. And art enables us to do that because of its transformative effects and its transporting effects. Because when you sing and you dance and you look at a spectacular work of art, you wear a spectacular work of art that changes you. And that enables you to be outside your ordinary self and to connect with something that’s larger than that ordinary self.